DBEA55AED16C0C92252A6554BC1553B2 Clicky DBEA55AED16C0C92252A6554BC1553B2 Clicky
May 20, 2024
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Trade shows are typically positive events. Attendees make their best impressions. People are friendly and determined to ensure booth visitors get something sweet to chew on and some tchotchke to take home for the kids or have as a desk toy. It’s all a good experience. Old relationships are rekindled. New relationships are created.  So, the fabric of commercial aviation is patched, restored, and added to it.

Amidst the human interactions, some threads are discernable.

Covid is no longer a valid excuse, but its impact continues.

MRO shops are backed up worldwide.  OEMs cannot deliver on time, and supply chains are stretched and stressed.  The thread connecting this is the pandemic layoffs and retirements.

Companies across the aviation spectrum laid off their oldest and most skilled people. The most experienced mechanics and employees were provided similar incentives within the supply chain, including MRO shops.  This turned out to be, potentially, the more expensive choice.  The pandemic forced managers to make decisions fast.  That sage advice, “Decide in haste, repent at leisure,” holds.

The air travel recovery everyone wanted was a V-shaped curve.  That came about, and virtually nobody was ready.  The commercial aviation silo had hollowed out its skills to save money.  We don’t have to name names, but it’s clear to see how technical problems across the board are people-related.

The less experienced people building and assembling the myriad parts that go into an airplane today need those grizzled hands covered in grease and scars. If you don’t have a teacher to guide you, you get to learn on the job the hard way by making mistakes. There’s a reason factories have masters and apprentices.  This system has proven its worth over at least a century.

One senior engine executive bemoaned the lack of old hands “even down our supply chain.” If you can coax them back, they are much more expensive.  Mostly these people are happy to remain retired.

Another MRO executive spoke of receiving “dozens” of unsolicited resumes from across the globe.  Can these people’s skills be verified? Not easily.  Besides, immigrants with skills want to get their “papers” and then move to better-paying positions.  Employers are left with the less skilled or those they have to train.  US regional airlines also find themselves in this situation: perpetual flight training. Also, labor knows it has the upper hand and intends to push for its interests.

It is a tough situation, and only time will fix it. That time comes with higher costs that will be passed on to the final payer, the travel consumer. But, of course, it’s not just the financial cost. There are costs to shoddy work, like engine cowlings coming loose, and costs to slow deliveries.  Not to belabor the point, but the list goes all the way down the industry silo. Most of what goes wrong never makes it into the news.

There is a sense that the industry is recovering, but it faces a steep learning curve. The old hands, who understood the black art of assembly and could see how parts fit together despite working with “perfect” CAD/CAM, are absent, steepening that learning curve.

The industry will overcome this challenge as it has every other challenge.  But trepidation is warranted.  This one may take longer.

author avatar
Addison Schonland
Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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